The Americas, Actually

Every city makes me wonder about staying. Any new place and I find myself asking, “What does it cost to remain here?” Dublin, I learned, is a hard place to belong. After it became clear that I wasn’t a heritage tourist passing through, I began to feel the discomfort. My friendliness felt congenital. My enthusiasm inspired suspicion. Just like in many parts of the United States, Dubliners are quick to start a conversation, and like in the U.S., folks aren’t necessarily aiming to know you. In Ireland, however, there is an assumption that if you’re diasporic, people already do know you. But I wasn’t a monolingual, returned Irish from Brooklyn. Each time I heard myself introduced as “American,” it rattled my nerves. Even more annoying were my earnest protests to the imprecise categorization.

“Yes, I am American,” I’d explain, “but the United States is not America, and this difference does matter. I’m an American from the Americas, a U.S. American.”

“Whatever, Yank! California is Boston is Chicago is Detroit.”

I wasn’t trying to be fancy. American exceptionalism and historical amnesia in the face of manifest destiny are problems I chose to contest, not perpetuate. There was no carving the United States out from the body of my hemisphere–South, Central, and North America have shaped who I am. I went to high school in South America–La Escuela Nacional Superior de San Jorge–not because my parents were diplomats or worked in the oil industry but because I needed to flee a violent father. My dad wasn’t mine by blood but he was the only dad I knew and becoming an exchange student was my best way out, my route to safety. In the center of Argentina, speaking Spanish, I learned to express emotions formerly forbidden like sadness and doubt. Within two months, I was dreaming in Castellano. I liked myself in Spanish; I felt funny and brave. By the end of my yearlong stay, I did not want to go back to the United States. Children, entire families stared at me as I sobbed uncontrollably at the Azeiza airport. It wasn’t the normal kind of crying that comes with saying goodbye or being reunited. I wanted to remain in my Spanish language home. The desire to return led me to volunteer as an interpreter for Central American refugees and eventually to work in El Salvador during and after the U.S.-funded war where I grew up politically and made family.

And later, after ten years of living a bilingual life in the Sonoran desert, I followed a Ph.D. fellowship to that shimmer of an island floating in the Atlantic. An island called Ireland. I knew little about it. After my first time in South America as a high school student, my classmates asked, “why I didn’t go somewhere more interesting–like Germany, England or France?” I resented their euro-centrism; it dampened my interest in Europe. But, my doctoral supervisors at the University of Arizona encouraged me to take the chance.

“3.5 years of funding for doctoral fieldwork! You’ll regret it if you don’t go!”

I sent half of my library across the Atlantic in seven U.S. postal service book bags. I sold all three of my bicycles. My home became an Everything Must Go offering as friends stopped by to choose earrings, dresses, Steve Madden shoes, futons, plants. I gave away my berimbau from Bahia, my djembe from Senegal, my Peruvian bombo, my Salvadoran petate from Morazán. I went from being a homeowner to a very reluctant landlord. I was unprepared.

I believed in the need to travel light and packed all the wrong items into two suitcases. I brought over those JBL creature speakers with an incompatible mains voltage and blew them out the very first night in my drafty 400-euro-a-month bedroom inside a refurbished Rialto row house where every Sunday around lunchtime a man would hang his head out the back window of his apartment and puke his guts into the alleyway between his place and ours. Every morning of that first summer, The Rainiest Summer in Fifty Years, I’d begin the day with a smudgy plastic shower curtain stuck to my bum and back of legs as the electric shower wheezed out its low-pressure bursts of frigid-cold and boiling-hot water. I’d cover up in yellow rain gear, the only thing I had needed to pack, cycle through watery traffic, arrive at the mold-scented college, walk up to the third floor with my aspirational coffee, and take my seat at the desk. After several hours of sitting lost before the computer, I’d cycle back to the apartment to prepare and eat dinner alone. Jamie Oliver pasta sauce and spaghetti or grilled cheese sandwich with some kind of soup. It’s not that I didn’t recognize the food in the convenience store of my neighborhood’s food desert; I didn’t know what to make with the new ingredients. All the foods I missed–tasty avocados, cantaloupes, corn tortillas, fresh red chilies, roasted green salsa, queso fresco, black beans, squash, pumpkin, mesquite flour, and mole–obscured my ability to imagine anything else. Dubliners insisted that the foods I longed for were readily available in their cosmopolitan city but I rarely found the tastes that reminded me of home. I ate a lot of toasted wheaten bread and exquisite Irish butter, accompanied by Barry’s tea with milk and honey. After the nostalgia for food, there was the vexing challenge of how to dry and stay warm. In the depth of a Tucson summer, clothing and sheets go bone dry on the line in five minutes; there is no point in having a tumble dryer. In the fair city, where it does indeed rain, most apartments are missing dyers. Things are hung on clothing horses where they molder throughout the week and arrive at something on the border of dry and dry adjacent. Or they’re draped on the radiators where they get a short blast of heat each morning and night. I felt sorry for my clothes and sorry for myself. No more dresses, no more sandals. I tried to “layer” but I mostly failed. I knew I had made a rotten mistake but going home wasn’t an option. I had said my goodbyes. My friends had little sympathy for my homesickness and I felt embarrassed (and surprised) to find myself pining for the Americas, the South Western United States in particular.

I resolved to stay until I defended my Ph.D. but when my landlord returned from Paris and wanted back her apartment off Thomas Street near the Guinness brewery–the most affordable and charming place I had found in three nomadic years on the south side of the Liffey–I realized I had my ticket out. My visa had expired. I had finished the last research workshops. Reto suggested we move to his home city of Zurich where I could begin writing my doctoral thesis. I wanted to take us back to the Sonoran Desert, but my home was lost in the housing crisis and it hurt too much to return. I had bought the 1950s bungalow at a reasonable price with reasonable interest, but sustaining two households on a graduate student budget had proved impossible. Maybe the right amount of distance in Zurich would help with the writing. Once again, I packed my books. Into my lover’s hatchback, I added new clothes and a cheap bicycle. On the Oscar Wilde, we traveled across the Irish Sea from Rosslare to Cherbourg. I was happy to leave, but I couldn’t stop myself from crying. Somehow, I had failed to love Dublin.